American culture has in its short history amassed a modest crop of canonical chestnuts. These enduring achievements may dull the senses or tax the spirit, but nevertheless attention must be paid, usually in a classroom. Death of a Salesman is of course one such necessary acculturator, as are other learning tools for teens like The Bell Jar, The Red Badge of Courage, “Appalachian Spring” and American Gothic. Mark Twain fortunately killed off Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales for all time in his delightful essay “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” but I think that The Scarlet Letter and Walden still get assigned to prove that Americans were thinking and writing and reading as far back as 1850, and that Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains in print because the country is still reeling from the slavery question.
I consider myself fortunate to have given Leaves of Grass a second try last summer after disdainfully speed-reading it in college, and I hope to be similarly staggered someday by the inescapable Moby Dick, which I hated at 19. Yet I fear, after numerous attempts, that I’ll never appreciate Porgy and Bess. I respect it, I suppose I am glad it’s there, but the truth is it doesn’t move me either as a work of musical theatre or as Americana. On the plus side, it’s ambitious but not, thank God, pretentious; its musical textures and orchestrations are thrilling throughout. But I much prefer listening to Diahann Carroll sing “Summertime” or Barbra Streisand sing “I Loves You, Porgy” out of context than I do hearing the entire score or sitting through a performance, whether it be at Radio City Music Hall or at the Met.
Despite its status as an American classic, Porgy and Bess has not gone without detractors since its premiere in 1935. Genre critics have at last given up attempts at classification, letting Gershwin’s own ruling, “a folk opera,” stand, but some music critics still find it crudely written, inauthentic and just plain long. Theatre people don’t always like the recitatives and would like to hear more consonants from the singers. Over the years, in varying degrees of intensity, critics and performers alike have found the piece racist, offensively stereotypical and demeaning to African Americans. The dicey fact of the matter is that Gershwin and his co-librettists, brother Ira and DuBose Heyward, were white – and who were they to dramatize and perhaps pass judgment on the doings in Charleston’s Catfish Row, a southern locale now as mythically redolent as Belle Reve or Yoknapatawpha?
FOR STARTERS, AND ONE COULD go on, consider the piece’s four principal roles: Porgy is a cripple and a beggar. Bess and her red dress are an unreconstructed advertisement for the sins of the flesh, and although she does reform with Porgy, she is booby-trapped by her appetites and a libretto that announces from the start that a woman is a sometime thing. The hulking stevedore Crown, clearly drawn as a menace II society, kills Robbins with a baling hook in a crap game and sexually brutalizes Bess. Sportin’ Life is a gambler, a drug dealer, a blasphemer and, one may infer from the conclusion, will pimp Bess once they reach New York. While it’s facile to take potshots at operatic characters writ large, Porgy and Bess has from its inception been praised for its “realistic depiction of black life.” Does all of that brilliant music offset the libretto? European audiences can rhapsodize about local color and folk naivete, but that is their luxury. Americans cannot squint the problems away, and they cannot shut their ears to the white approximation of black American English that the characters are singing.
So what is one to do with Porgy and Bess? On it rolls, launching great careers and breaking house records all over the world. The Breen-Davis tour of Porgy and Bess in the ’50s, which counted Leontyne Price, William Warfield and Maya Angelou among its roster of performers, was practically an arm of the state department, the first American cultural offering to penetrate the Iron Curtain and play Leningrad and Moscow (with stops in Poland and Yugoslavia). It was the first American opera to play La Scala in 1954, and in 1986, assumed similar status at the hallowed Glyndebourne Festival in England. (Can Bayreuth be far off?)
Directed by Trevor Nunn and conducted by Simon Rattle with the London Philharmonic, the Glyndebourne production threw off a full-length recording, was restaged at the Royal Opera House in 1992 and has just been filmed for public television by Nunn for American Playhouse and Great Performances, a joint venture that aptly bridges, as does the work itself, the worlds of theatre and classical music.
DIFFERENT PRODUCTIONS over the years have been lauded or criticized for being too grand or too modest, too opera or too Broadway. No stranger to musical spectacle when that’s what the occasion warrants, Nunn retains all of the score except “The Buzzard Song” and the top of Act 3, scene iii, and sort of goes on studio location in John Gunter’s Catfish Row, shifting scenes indoors and cutting to the ocean when the fishermen sail out. Unfortunately, there is no shot that firmly establishes Catfish Row the way the show’s monolithic sets usually do, so the viewer is spatially dislocated about how the community is set up and where people are headed. In the enormous crowd scenes, there’s enough stage business for three Renaissance fairs or eight productions of Oliver! – and therein lies a frustrating contradiction in filmed opera. A film ideally allows viewers to see what they cannot see from a loge seat; zooming in on intimate details, however, negates the essential prerogative of opera to be grand, and Porgy and Bess is not an intimate opera. The drama rests in the music, not in our ability to see the box-cars that the doomed Robbins throws in the crap game. What I’m trying to say is that opera thrives in the long-shot, with cuts to full-body on the arias – staying in close subordinates the music.
There’s also the problem of opera singing on film. The actors appear to be lip-synching to their pre-recorded voices, and some are better at it than others. Cynthia Haymon’s Bess is truly disorienting; while her incredible voice is blowing the roof off of Porgy’s hut on the soundtrack, her masklike face remains impassive, unexpressive. There’s no wrinkle on her brow, no how, and the film consequently lacks a dramatic center. The only character to benefit from Nunn’s predeliction for closeups is Sportin’ Life. Nunn is careful to let us watch Sportin’ Life watch the action. He has never seemed so less a minstrel clown and more a sick, evil destroyer who clearly outpaces Crown in menace.
In his interpretation, Nunn has taken Porgy’s cart and goat away from him and given him crutches, explaining that he wanted to deemphasize Porgy’s infirmities and make him more of a believable alternative for Bess. This makes some sense when you consider the seductiveness of Gregg Baker’s Crown (for once the actor isn’t built like a polar bear, and the “What you want wid Bess?” scene is a highlight of the film). On the other hand, why rob Bess of her ability to fall in love with a cripple?
I DIDN’T MISS PORGY’S GOAT until the ending. Usually, when Porgy heads off after Bess in the conclusion, it does feel like the saddest story ever told. Nunn’s choice to have Porgy throw off his crutches and attempt a step as a whole man through the portals of Catfish Row replaces pathos with unearned, yes-I-can positivism. On his cart (with or without the goat) you knew Porgy would never get there, and Bess feels like the Holy Grail, worth wanting, making Porgy the noblest, the most tragic of questing fools. If Porgy seems strong enough or whole enough to reach New York and find her, then you also fear he should be smart enough to realize Bess is not worth the trip. And if he’s not smart enough to figure that out, then he’s tragically dumb.
As I mentioned, it’s easier for me to admire Porgy and Bess as a songbook: great dramatic songs lifted from their problematic context for great voices in recital. Maybe my racial squeamishness is knee-jerk liberalism masking something else; maybe I’d be less troubled overall if George Gershwin had lived long enough to fall in love with Their Eyes Were Watching God and collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston on that opera. I might be less troubled if Porgy, Bess, Crown and Sportin’ Life were enacting their tragic melodrama as disadvantaged whites, or were in Seville singing in French. I might relax a bit if Anthony Davis’s X had received the critical attention and commercial bookings that Nixon in China and The Ghosts of Versailles have in recent seasons. If only George Gershwin could have hung on to write more operas and field questions about his first one.
GIVEN OUR LONG HISTORY of feeling culturally inferior to Europe, small wonder that the first accomplished American opera to come along the pike would be culturally overdetermined by necessity, and that we as a Second World nation would stake ourselves to its status as such. I just wish that the first, last and foremost American opera were not Porgy and Bess. When all is said and done – when my critical stance is stripped away and my politically correct hackles are lowered and I come before the opera as might a child or a foreigner – I think Porgy and Bess is boring. We all know it’s racist – that’s easy – but I also think it’s boring. It’s too long, duly moving but, oh, so slow, the recitatives seem beside the point, there are too many choral numbers, and even when it sounds great and how can it not? – I never get all the words.